Vikings share about their experiences as student athletes

Berry Athletic Department celebrating national Division III Week

Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor

Junior TJ Tracy, 21, started playing soccer as a 4-year-old as part of his mother’s effort to have him try all the typical childhood sports. Tracy said that while his love of the sport and coach’s encouragement kept him involved through high school, it was finding a friend group among the team that pushed him to keep playing in college. Courtesy of TJ Tracy

When Berry joined the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) as a Division III team 13 years ago, it could no longer recruit athletes to play for scholarship funds. Many years have passed without a student that receives athletic scholarships playing for the college’s programs, and yet the number of student athletes at Berry has grown from by approximately 200 students to 560, according to a January article by Berry president Steve Briggs.

Division III Week is an annual, nationwide celebration of the impact of DIII student athletes and athletics on college campuses and their surrounding communities, according to the NCAA’s website. Member institutions have commemorated the week since 2010, observing it this year from April 10-16. Division III is the only NCAA division not allowing colleges to offer athletic scholarships.

Berry Athletic Department assistant director Ginger Swann (93C) said 2023 is the second year that the Vikings’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) has led a department wide effort for the annual commemoration. Efforts usually include tabling in Krannert, encouraging each sport team’s faculty liaisons and sharing the experiences of student athletes on social media.

Swann, who was a student athlete during her time at Berry, said that not competing on scholarship gives unique opportunities to DIII athletes when it comes having a complete academic and extracurricular student experience. 

“They practice long and hard now, but we tend to find more students more involved with jobs on campus, career things they’re focused on,” Swann said.

Jazzy Innis, a junior member of the indoor and beach volleyball teams, agreed that playing for a DIII school has allowed her to pursue professional goals.

Innis attended the NCAA’s national convention in January and was one of 40 athletes to participate in the DIII student immersion program, created to show minority students what a career is like working for the NCAA institutionally.

Senior Hannah Smith, 22, began swimming at age 8, so she could be a unified partner for her brother in their local special olympics.
Smith said she discovered her love of racing at a competition in middle school, and this passion is what has motivated her to
continue racing in college. Courtesy of Hannah Smith

“I get to play a sport, I get to go to my classes, and I get to build my resume and network,” Innis said. “I think being a DIII athlete is special because your institution really does care about you and want to see you excel not only in your sport, but also your professional career.”

Innis, a communication major, is also a member of the NCAA’s APPLE team chapter at Berry, a group that creates programming to focus on student athlete well-being on campus, in addition to attending a weekly Bible study and regular meetings with friends.

Innis said that when fatigue sets in, she is motivated by the support and understanding she gets from coaches and fellow teammates.

To overcome the challenges of time management as dual-season athlete, with every hour of the day blocked off, year-round, Innis said she goes to a coffee shop every Sunday and tries to knock out all the assignments she can to lighten her workload for that week, sometimes spending six to seven hours there.

“I’ve learned that sometimes you’ve got to say no to the fun stuff to get your work done, but I think having less time makes it easier for me to stay on top of things,” Innis said.

Hannah Smith, senior team captain of the women’s swim and dive team, agreed that time management is a major challenge faced by student athletes.

As the Leadership and Service Fellows Program Coordinator, a level 5 student work position, Smith said having several weekday absences has forced her to rely on her supervisees and involve them more in the program planning process, which she said is an improvement for any office environment.

“I don’t know if I would have been able to successfully process that, find a way to implement it, without my background in athletics, and just knowing there’s so much diversity in the group and its better to play on each other’s strengths than to view your differences as weaknesses,” Smith said.

Smith, an exercise science major and medical school prospect, passed up on two scholarship offers to play at Berry, one from DI school Gardner-Webb University and the other from DII school Carson-Newman University.

In addition to Berry’s clear mission statement and the Leadership and Service Fellows scholarship, Smith said that she chose the school because she felt a family atmosphere from the Vikings’ aquatics program and a level of campus-wide academic support that was unparalleled at the other schools.

“I felt that I would be supported by both my coach and professors here, whereas at other places it felt like I was getting money to swim, so swim was going to need to come first sometimes,” Smith said. “I met advisors at other schools and they were like, ‘yeah athletes are busy,’ but I didn’t feel like they really helped them work through balancing things.”

Smith said that her love of racing, which she discovered as a young swimmer, keeps her motivated through the fatigue that comes from 5 a.m. warmups and two-hour workouts in the height of swim and dive season, since being on a team is her only opportunity to compete.

TJ Tracy, a junior member of the men’s soccer team, said that he is motivated less by love of the sport than the typical non-scholarship college athlete, but the friendships he has built among the team get him through the grind of practice.

Junior Jazzy Innis, 20, was 10 years old when she played volleyball for the first time. Innis
said she enjoyed the camaraderie of school and club teams, which is what drew her to Berry’s team. Courtesy of Jazzy Innis

“The ability to go play with them, and put in [time] of hard work and competition, it’s satisfying and fun because they’re my friends,” Tracy said. “If not there would be no motivation.”

Tracy, a data analytics major, said the jock stereotype also pushed him to prove his intellectual abilities. His focus on academics piqued the interest last year of visiting associate professor Hoang Dao, who offered him a research assistant position and encouraged him to participate in the 2022 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). 

A concurrent internship with Harbin Clinic in Rome drove Tracy to study the connection between shorter work weeks and labor productivity. Along with women’s soccer team member Karsen Brantley, Tracy presented this research at the 2023 Eastern Economic Association Conference in late February.

Tracy said that most of the tweaking of their presentation was done after soccer season ended, in December and January, although he was able to squeeze some research into his free time in the fall. 

“I wanted to [take] any opportunity I had to further that knowledge and experience that I could gain while I’m here,” Tracy said. “You only get four years, and not every time you’re going to get an opportunity to do research like that.”

Smith said that to her, the value of the experiences of a DIII student athlete has become apparent in the application process for graduate school.

“The question has always been, ‘how are you going to balance the rigor of med school?’” Smith said. “Every time I’ve been able to say, ‘well at Berry I had a work position, I was an athlete.’ Academics are rigorous here, that’s well known. I can answer because of everything I’ve done here.”

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